After more than two dozen hours of testimony about illegal immigration from Utahns across the state, it looks as if a comprehensive immigration reform bill will survive with only a couple of minor tweaks.
SB81 attempts to tighten immigration policy by enlisting local law enforcement to play a role, requiring public employers to use a citizenship-verification program and criminalizing the transportation or harboring of an undocumented immigrant for financial gain, among other provisions.
The bill passed in the 2008 session, but will not take effect until July 1, 2009. Members of the legislative Immigration Interim Committee have traveled the state during the last several months, hearing impassioned arguments from all sides, said Rep. Brad Dee, R-Washington Terrace.
"Most people have been supportive of SB81, and there was some opposition, but a lot of groups have asked for a stronger law," Dee said. "But SB81 is a reasonable compromise."
He sees only two facets of the bill getting amended this year. The bill requires all businesses contracting with the state to hire only legal workers. A bill will be drafted to clarify that a contractor is someone who goes through the bidding process. That would prevent, for example, grocery stores who accept food stamps from being subject to that provision.
Also, a bill extending the date for changes to the Utah driver license to coincide with the federal RealID effective date of January 2010.
Some lawmakers, though, hope to kill the bill outright.
Rep. Stephen Clark, R-Provo, will push replacement legislation that calls for a funded study to see if undocumented workers are helping or hindering the state's economy.
"We've gotten a lot of emotional testimony on the good side and bad side of illegal immigration, but we need to have a study conducted to look into the real facts of the matter," said Clark, who sits on the immigration committee. "Knee-jerk reactions such as SB81 will not help the state."
Moving slowly and deliberately is something community activist Michael Clara says is financially prudent, especially with the bill's $1.75 million price tag.
"When state agencies are making cuts across the board, there's not going to be much appetite to deal with immigration the way SB81 will deal with it," Clara said. "Utah lawmakers will leave immigration with the federal government and what's driving that is the economic situation. They're going to find they cannot afford to do the job of the federal government."
But some of the bill's proponents say the bill doesn't go far enough.
Rep. Glenn Donnelson, R-North Ogden, said he would have liked to see the bill address the cost of educating undocumented immigrants. But "the bill needs to go through intact," said Donnelson, who was defeated in the Republican primary.
One provision in the bill would require law-enforcement officers to verify the citizenship status of inmates and grant authority to local officers to essentially serve as immigration agents.
"Law enforcement doesn't want to be out on the street to make those types of determinations and making arrests solely on their illegal status," said Cache County Sheriff Lynn Nelson, president of the Utah Sheriff's Association. "If there's a crime committed, though, and they're convicted and in jail, we're pretty supportive of the bill."
That authority, though, would require the Attorney General's Office to get permission from the Department of Homeland Security, something the office won't do until after this session.
"We need to find out what the final statute looks like," said Paul Murphy, spokesman for Attorney General Mark Shurtleff. "Then we'll work fairly quickly after the session to meet the July 1 deadline."
But some community activists still are saddened that after a full year of hearing testimony pleading for compassion, the bill looks set to make it through largely unchanged.
Manny Aguilar, an activist in St. George, got people together to take English as a Second Language classes, but he now worries that the ESL program will lose state funding for teaching undocumented immigrants.
"If you have a person who is undocumented, you might as well have that person educated. Why would you block them from that?" Aguilar asked.
More disappointing to him, though, was that he felt his testimony had little impact on the committee, with some members seeming to have already made up their minds.
"We're just hoping like crazy that Barack Obama will be compassionate and give us a fair shake," he said.
» County sheriffs must make a reasonable effort to determine citizenship status of inmates
» The Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission could not grant liquor or private club licenses to an undocumented immigrant
» Public employers must check citizenship status of all employees
» Any state contractor must employ only legal citizens
» Makes it illegal to fire a legal citizen while retaining an undocumented worker
» Denies any state or local benefit program to undocumented immigrants
» Creates the Fraudulent Documents Identification Unit in the Attorney General's Office to investigate identity fraud
» Requires the AG's Office to ask the federal government for the authority for local law enforcement to act as immigration officials
» Makes it a Class A misdemeanor to transport or harbor an undocumented worker for personal financial gain